Cows dot fields and pastures across many countries. Their products—which can be preserved for extended use, such as butter, cheese, and smoked or cured meats—are valued and consumed worldwide. And, scientists are still finding new uses for the roughly 80 pounds of manure that a dairy cow produces daily. Chew the cud over these 10 facts about bovines.
1. COWS ARE KILLERS.
As ABC News reported, a 2012 study published in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine found that cattle cause an average of 22 deaths per year. Sharks, on the other hand, kill about six people per year. It sounds like SyFy should have made Cownado instead.
2. COW TIPPING IS JUST A MYTH.
It might be funny to imagine a sleeping cow falling over with just a gentle shove, but cow tipping isn't that easy. Actually, it's nearly impossible. Cows sleep lying down and are generally wary of approaching humans, so they're never really blissed-out enough to allow a stranger to get close enough to touch them. But the bigger obstacle is their sheer size. Cows are massive—on average 1500 pounds—and balance their weight on all four legs.
3. COWS HAVE COMPLICATED DIGESTIVE SYSTEMS.
Cow stomachs are made up of four pouches—the reticulum, the rumen, the omasum, and the abomasum—each serving a specific purpose. Cows barely chew their food before it enters the rumen, the first and largest part of the stomach. Once the rumen is full, the cow lies down and the reticulum—which is made of muscle and is connected to the rumen so food and water can easily pass back and forth—pushes the unchewed food back up the esophagus and into the mouth. After re-chewing, or rumination, the food eventually passes through the omasum. The omasum filters out the water and gives the bacteria in the rumen more time to break down the food and take in more nutrients. Finally, the food enters the abomasum, which functions similar to a human stomach.
4. THERE ARE SURROGATE COWS.
Transferring embryos from a genetically superior cow to a merely adequate cow is becoming more common. The procedure—known as embryo transfer (ET)—involves injecting a superior cow with hormones so she produces multiple eggs. Her eggs then need to be fertilized, either naturally or through artificial insemination. When the eggs are fertilized, a vet performs an “embryo flush” to remove them. That generally results in six to seven usable embryos, but can produce as many as 80 or 90. Without hormone treatment, a cow can only produce one embryo.
5. THE ORIGIN OF THE WORD CATTLE STEMS FROM THE WORD FOR PERSONAL PROPERTY.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the origin of cattle is chatel, the Anglo-French word for personal property. Chatel comes from the Medieval Latin term capitale.
6. A COW IS TECHNICALLY A FEMALE WHO HAS GIVEN BIRTH TO AT LEAST ONE CALF.
There are specific terms for bovines depending on their age, sex, and purpose. For example, a “bull” is a mature, male bovine used for breeding, while a “steer” is a male that's been castrated and is used for its beef. A “heifer” is a female bovine that has yet to have calves, and a “bred heifer” is a pregnant heifer. There are a number of additional terms that farmers use to describe members of their herd.
7. BULLS CAN'T SEE RED.
A bullfighter could just as easily wave a pink or purple flag to get a bull to charge. The bull isn't angered by the color—all bovines are red/green colorblind. Instead, it's the movement of the cloth that gets it all riled up. The real reason matadors wear red: to hide the bull's blood.
8. COWS WITH NAMES PRODUCE MORE MILK.
If farmers have a good relationship with their cows—meaning they give them names and show enough affection—they can produce more milk than their lonely counterparts. A 2009 study from Newcastle University found that cows who are more comfortable around humans are less stressed when milked. When cows are stressed, they produce cortisol, a hormone that inhibits milk production. Another plus side of a happy cow-human relationship: farmers are less likely to get injured on the job (see fact #1).
9. INTO THE WOODS USED A REAL COW.
For the 2014 film, director Rob Marshall wanted to use a real, live cow instead of depending on CGI. James Corden, who played the Baker and spent plenty of time with his bovine costar, admitted that things didn't always go smoothly: “You just don't know what it's like when you're doing a scene, and Meryl Streep is giving a phenomenal performance in only the way she can and it's scuppered by just 'Moooooooo,'” he recalled, adding, “That cow was the biggest diva on this set.”
10. COWS PRODUCE METHANE, BUT DON'T BLAME THEM FOR GLOBAL WARMING.
According to UC Davis, cows are the main agricultural source of greenhouse gasses. A single bovine burps 220 pounds of methane every year. However, cows themselves are still far from being the primary cause of anthropogenic climate change.
A version of this story originally ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.